Jason and the Golden FleeceBy Michael Wood Last updated 2011-02-17
Michael Wood discovers a story of heroism, treachery, love and tragedy that would make Hollywood proud.
On this page
- Classic tale
- Jason’s task
- Black Sea colonisation
- City of Aia
- The story continues
- Find out more
Classic taleThe Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece has been told for 3,000 years. It’s a classic hero’s quest tale – a sort of ancient Greek mission impossible – in which the hero embarks on a sea voyage into an unknown land, with a great task to achieve. He is in search of a magical ram’s fleece, which he has to find in order to reclaim his father’s kingdom of Iolkos from the usurper King Pelias.
The Greeks have retold and reinterpreted it many times since, changing it as their knowledge of the physical world increased.
Jason’s taskAccording to the legend, Jason was deprived of his expectation of the throne of Iolkos (a real kingdom situated in the locale of present day Volos) by his uncle, King Pelias, who usurped the throne. Jason was taken from his parents, and was brought up on Mount Pelion, in Thessaly, by a centaur named Cheiron. Meantime his uncle lived in dread of an oracle’s prophecy, which said he should fear the ‘man with one shoe’.
His task would take him beyond the known world to acquire the fleece of a magical ram that once belonged to Zeus, the king of the gods.
Black Sea colonisationJason’s ship, the Argo, began its journey with a crew of 50 (which swelled to 100, including Hercules, in subsequent retellings of the myth) – known as the ‘Argonauts’. The Greek claim that the Argo was the first ship ever built can not be true, but Jason’s journey was seen by the ancient Greeks as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken. Indeed, the voyage can be seen as a metaphor for the opening up of the Black Sea coast. Historically, once the Greeks learned to sail into the Black Sea they embarked on a period of colonisation lasting some 3,000 years – but the time they first arrived in the region is still controversial. Lemnos, an island in the north-eastern Aegean was Jason’s first stop. This was a place inhabited by women who had murdered their husbands after being cursed by Aphrodite. Next the Argosailed to Samothrace, where the Argonauts were initiated into the Kabeiroi, a cult of ‘great gods’ who were not Greek and who offered protection to seafarers. From Samothrace the adventurers passed the city of Troy by night, and entered the Sea of Marmara the next day.
The Jason tale is a founding myth for many towns along this shore.
City of AiaThe story continues with the Argonauts finally reaching the land of Colchis, and the first part of their quest is achieved. The heroes land and hold council, deciding to walk up to the city of Aia. Along the way they see bodies wrapped in hides and hung in trees, a sight that travellers in Georgia recount right up to the 17th century. The ancient Greeks speak of Aia as a real city on the River Phasis (the modern River Rhion). Archaeologists have yet to find it, although in 1876 gold treasure was found in this region at an ancient site near the town of Vani, and it was suggested that this might be the city of the Argonaut legend. Heinrich Schlieman, the excavator of Troy and Mycenae, proposed to dig here but was not given permission.
This suggests that some parts of the myth depict the culture of the historical Iron Age rather than the earlier Bronze Age of Jason.
The story continuesIn the myth, once in Colchis Jason asks King Aietes to return the Golden Fleece. Aietes agrees to do so if Jason can perform a series of superhuman tasks. He has to yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons’ teeth, and overcome phantom warriors. In the meantime Aphrodite (the goddess of love) makes Medea, daughter of King Aietes, fall in love with Jason. Medea offers to help Jason with his tasks if he marries her in return. He agrees, and is enabled to complete the tasks.
Thus the classic triangle of hero, dark power and female helper is formed, to be repeated in stories all the way down to Hollywood.
DénouementOn his return to Iolkos Jason discovers that King Pelias has killed his father, and his mother has died of grief. Medea tricks Pelias by offering to rejuvenate him, and then kills him. Jason and Medea go into exile in Corinth, where Jason betrays Medea by marrying the king’s daughter. Medea takes revenge by killing her own children by Jason.
Pausanias, in his first-century guidebook to Greece, describes a shrine to the murdered children next to a temple to Hera, queen of gods, at Corinth.